Green Computing: Tips on Minimising Environmental Impact in Everyday Use

Green Computing: Tips on Minimising Environmental Impact in Everyday Use
03 Nov 2020

Although the global crisis caused by the coronavirus has momentarily forced the topic of sustainability somewhat onto the back burner, it is still an issue that both enterprises and private users have to face up to. Careful use of resources, reduction of energy consumption and protection of the environment are just as important to IT today as they were before the pandemic. But what is green computing exactly? This article explains the term and gives tips for more sustainability in information technology.

Growing demand for energy in computer centres and telecommunications

A joint analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM) and the Borderstep Institute for Innovation and Sustainability predicts a slight drop in energy demand in IT as a whole up to the year 2025. However, the opposite is true for telecommunications and computer centres. In computer centres in particular, demand is set to rise by around 60 percent. On the other hand, there will be savings in workplace IT and private computer usage. However, the current year has changed everything once more.

According to information from the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (Bundesverband der Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft, BDEW) power consumption in April and May 2020 initially fell by over 10 percent across Germany. That was mainly because of a 23 percent plunge in industrial production compared to the previous year. On the other hand, consumption at Internet hubs and in computer centres rose considerably as a lot of people were working from home and accessing cloud and streaming services more frequently. There was also a sharp increase in the use of video conferences.

Green computing concerns us all, in our private lives as well as at work

Green computing is not only about energy but also about reducing the amount of material used in the production of computers and networking devices. Reducing pollutants, sustainable product design, environment-friendly recycling as well as fair working conditions for IT users are further significant factors.

In the course of the last few decades, several eco-labels such as the Blue Angel, Energy Star and TCO-Certified have been developed to make energy-efficient devices more easily recognisable. In a computer, for example, it must be possible to automatically activate a standby mode after a certain period of time to reduce processing power and switch off the screen and the hard drive.

The German Environment Agency has compiled further tips on saving energy. For example, the Agency recommends using computers for as long as possible. Furthermore, users should check whether a repair or upgrade is possible before buying a new device. Users should also consider purchasing a used device, as manufacturing new computers involves the consumption of a lot of resources. New devices require valuable raw materials and precious metals, and obtaining them has a negative effect on the environment and often on workers as well.

Green computing in enterprises

It is not only private consumers who are impacted by green computing. The issue is also playing an increasingly significant role in enterprises. In Germany alone, there are tens of thousands of computer centres with a high level of energy consumption. For example, in the financial hub of Frankfurt, the servers alone account for around 20 percent of the city’s energy requirement. Servers and networking devices also produce a great deal of waste heat, which in most cases remains unexploited. However, there are now some initial projects in which it is harnessed to heat swimming pools, for example.

According to calculations by the Network for Energy-Efficient Computer Centres (Netzwerk energieeffizienter Rechenzentren, NeRZ), around 13 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electric power is converted into largely unharnessed heat in Germany’s computer centres. Re-use of these vast amounts of waste heat is therefore particularly important with respect to protecting the environment. Consolidating applications and servers also lowers energy consumption. Sometimes relatively simple measures suffice, such as taking local circumstances and the prevailing wind direction into account when planning a new computer centre. The windows on two sides can then be opened in the colder months to provide ventilation and, consequently, free cooling.

Enormous energy wastage
The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab assumes that just 43 percent of power consumption in computer centres is actually required for running the servers. A further 43 percent is needed for the power supply and cooling. The remaining energy is used for data storage equipment and operating the networks.

Simple solutions for minimising environmental impact

Cooling is important, but it doesn’t always have to be freezing cold in the server room. The current advice from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends a temperature range between 18 and 27 degrees Celsius. Higher temperatures ultimately cut costs. This is especially true when using modern hardware, which in some cases can be run at temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius.

Taking energy-efficiency into consideration when buying new equipment can also leverage benefits. In many cases, consumption can be cut without spending much more on procurement costs. Centralizing IT in a just a few computer centres with particularly powerful machines suitable for virtualisation and then running virtual servers and applications on them also helps to reduce the number of real servers and, consequently, to cut energy costs.

The Borderstep Institute has another simple yet efficient tip up its sleeve: If actual power costs are allocated to the departments where they were incurred, this automatically leads to more careful consumption habits among those concerned.


Andreas Th. Fischer